Florida Folk interpretation of Our Lady of Charity, patron saint of Cuba, with bust of José Martí–also a perpetual candidate. Source: María Elena Díaz.


By Nora Connor

Pope Benedict completes his pilgrimage to Cuba today, having wrapped up his “pastoral” visit to Mexico, in which he tidily summarized that nation’s struggles with the drug war-industrial complex:

The pope also addressed Mexico’s struggle against violence on the plane trip here from Rome, where he blamed the “idolatry of money” for drawing young people into lives of crime. In a brief speech at the airport here, he also said he was praying for “those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence.”

And yet, the pope’s approach — framing Mexico’s violence as a personal moral failing — perfectly matches that of President Calderón, a devout Catholic. That message, experts say, will help shift the debate away from policy, and complaints about how the Calderón administration has managed the fight against drug cartels that has led to 50,000 deaths since late 2006.

In Cuba, things are a bit different, if only in the sense that more people have more things to say about the papal visit to the formerly atheist island nation. Would the Pope meet Fidel Castro? (Possibly causing Fidel to vanish in a puff of smoke?) Would he get that American contractor out of jail? Or say anything more controversial than “Marxism no longer corresponds to reality?” Is it mere coincidence that Hugo Chavez is currently in Havana for radiation treatment? And what do the Miami Cubans think, whether making the pilgrimage to Cuba or watching Monday’s mass on the giant screen at Our Lady Of Charity Chapel in Miami? At least one was quoted by the Miami Herald as having pretty big hopes—that “the pope’s visit would result ‘in a wakeup call for the Cuban people so they will demand freedom.’”

For the U.S. media, then, Cuba retains its fascination. And it does appear that the Castros–with their request for a “humble audience” with the Pope and gentle encouragement to the Cuban people to turn out in numbers–feel they have something to gain by association. The whole escapade takes on the feel of an iconic puppet duel: the Pope, the Castros, the juxtaposition of images. During the last papal visit, the Mass in Revolution Plaza featured a giant poster of Jesus facing the monument to Che Guevara. On Monday, it was an image of Cuba’s patron saint.


The original statue-icon, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. The statue is said to be 400 years old this year.


Yet Benedict’s trip to Cuba may call for a heavier emphasis on retail Popery. Why mess around with complicated things like taking a stance on international embargoes and government repression, when you desperately need to make up some ground in the late-communist religious scene? Al-Jazeera reports that the Pope’s advisors “are likely having backroom discussions about an impending threat to the Catholic Church’s historic dominance in the region: the rise of evangelical Christianity.” If so, they are a few decades too late:

“The pope goes around with a Christ who is crucified,” said Isabel Reina, 52, a member of Pastor Ortega’s [Havana Methodist Charismatic] church, which, the pastor said, has grown by 40 percent in the past five years to 2,700 members. “My Christ is alive.”

Still, the Catholic Church’s semi-privileged relationship with the Cuban government will provide the Pope with an exclusive opportunity to publicly engage with the primary symbol of Cuban popular piety–the icon of the aforementioned patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, (or, in Spanish, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre). Following last year’s state-approved, Church-led tour of a replica, Benedict will visit the Basilica shrine in the village of Cobre, near Santiago. Our Lady by all accounts remains a hugely popular national symbol, venerated (claimed?) by Catholics, practitioners of Santeria, nationalists, revolutionaries and atheists alike in their various ethnic-ideological configurations. Perhaps Benedict is hoping that Nuestra Señora will intercede on his behalf, maybe to hike weekly mass attendance figures up out of single digits.

Pope Benedict approaches the icon of Our Lady of Charity, El Cobre, Cuba. Source: Esteban Felix, AP.

Images evoke; they can also obscure. Benedict’s visit to El Cobre and the icon echoes the one made by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Both performances aim to enact a unitary Cuban national identity, which is also Catholic, and which does not necessarily admit of the current or historical conflicts beneath its surface.  The most common stories about the icon tell that she was found four hundred years ago, floating offshore by two indios and an African slave (fishermen or miners, usually), and that she wouldn’t be moved from the community in El Cobre where they brought her. That community would become the site of multiple rebellions, slave and otherwise, throughout Cuban colonial and modern history. One strand of this history is now commemorated by the initiative of an agency just as global as the Catholic Church, but with a different set of memorializing priorities–UNESCO. A wider view of the El Cobre visited yesterday by Pope Benedict shows both the basilica housing the Virgin of Charity and the UNESCO-designated monument to El Cimarrón (the runaway slave).


View of El Cobre showing monument to El Cimarrón (the runaway slave) and the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity. Source: Maria Elena Diaz.


This is only to say that, just as there is more than one Virgen de Caridad, the Cuban Revolution was not the only Cuban revolution. Likewise, the Benedict-Castro sanctioned pilgrimage is not the only religion in Cuba, though it may be diagnostic of the only Catholicism–one that operates more on the level of state and official theater than in the home or in Sunday Mass. For all the speculation, the 46-year-old Communist Party member who spoke to Reuters may have provided the most reasonable commentary on the papal visit when he warned that “nobody should expect miracles. Nothing will change because of the Pope.”

Yoruba-Santeria-nationalist rendering of Our Lady of Charity. Source: clandestinecuba.org



Thanks to Maria Elena Diaz of UC Santa Cruz for her work and wonderful website about the history of El Cobre and the Marian cult in Cuba.

Nora Connor is a filmmaker and multimedia journalist with a background in labor and human rights organizing. She studied religion and anthropology at Columbia and journalism at NYU. She is the 2011 Luce Fellow in International Digital Religion at The Center for Religion and Media/The Revealer.